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When Seeing is Believing: Making the Most of College Visits – Part 2

  • Kim Lundberg Homeschool Enrichment
  • 2009 7 Oct
When Seeing is Believing: Making the Most of College Visits – Part 2

In my last column, I suggested that high school students applying to colleges can greatly benefit from visiting the schools they are thinking of attending. Though Web sites and college guides offer a wealth of information and should definitely be the first place students and parents investigate, nothing can compare with stepping foot on the campuses themselves: meeting the people, walking the halls, attending classes, getting the feel of the place.

Though some of the topics I discuss in this article might appear trivial, don't be fooled. Sometimes the smallest things can make the biggest difference. When it comes to the important decision of where to attend college, students need to weigh the pros and cons of each college carefully, paying close attention to all the details.


Over the course of four years at college, students will eat approximately 2,940 meals away from home. So it seems wise to sample the food. When you visit, some schools will offer you free lunch passes, others will offer a free pass to the student but not to the parent, and some won't offer any passes at all. However, they nearly always will let you buy a meal ticket. Whether meals are free or $12, students should make an effort to eat at each school. Almost all colleges now hire catering companies to handle their meals, and these companies listen to the students' feedback, so college food is better than ever—though there are exceptions.

Most schools offer a vast array of menu choices, including fresh-baked cookies, fair-trade coffee, sushi, and vegetarian fare, as well as gluten-free, low-fat, diabetic, and organic options—not to mention foods from almost every country, and, of course, daily pizza! The majority of schools use a buffet-style system, offering an "eat whatever you want, however much you want" atmosphere, and most students enjoy this relaxed environment and the many choices available. Different meal plans (12 meals/wk and 16 meals/wk are most common) are complemented by "flex-dollars" that can be spent at the school's café, coffee shop, and market.

However, some schools are following a new trend: a declining balance system. Prices are put on each individual food item, and students' meal cards function as cash, with the total meal cost deducted from the card at each meal. Critics feel this "restaurant" format, which by nature draws attention to the high sticker price of most food items offered, may cause some students to skimp on their eating, or, in their concern over finances, to skip meals in an unhealthy manner. However, colleges are hoping for a better result: reports say this arrangement usually discourages mindless eating and needless waste. Declining balance systems do require somewhat careful choices and a modicum of restraint on the part of students, but to aid the students' money management efforts, the colleges often post charts that show the target amount that should be left on the card at any given point in the year.

The dining experience at colleges can vary widely. Some schools have only one crowded cafeteria to serve the entire student body, while others have themed dining areas in each dorm. Likewise, some dining halls offer meals at very limited times, while others are open for snacks and study 24 hours a day. Some will be conveniently located, while others will involve a strenuous uphill hike from classes every day.

Most schools, of course, fall somewhere in the middle of all these extremes, but on our own college tours, we have experienced dining in each of the above situations, and we are glad we did. Eating is a big part of life and can directly affect a student's health and spirits, so don't neglect to research (and hopefully taste) what colleges offer in the way of dining quality and convenience.


Dormitory living is quite different from what most young people are used to in the way of home life, and colleges now offer several types of living situations. It is critical that students and parents fully understand and are comfortable with the dorm settings of the schools where students are applying.

Visiting potential colleges can really help in this area. Some colleges are not able to provide dorm housing for all students and may require third- and fourth- year students to live off-campus, which can be quite expensive, so it is necessary to plan ahead if this is a possibility. Other housing options include apartment-style living on campus or themed houses (centered on interests such as foreign language or career plans). However, the most common living situation for incoming freshmen remains the college dorm.

These days, many schools cite privacy issues, and their tours merely walk through a dorm hallway. Other schools encourage students to spend the night in a "normal" dorm room with a host student. Definitely, if you have a chance to see a room, take it. Dorm settings across the country range from bare tile floors and cold metal furnishings to plush carpet and authentic antique furniture. Some dorms are brand new and have central heat and air conditioning; others are old and require you to bring plenty of blankets and a strong fan. Some schools crowd the kids into triples and quads; others have only double and single rooms. Suite living is a popular new feature in dorm life, where several single or double bedrooms surround a central living area, bathroom, and kitchen for four to twelve students, but the old-fashioned, one-community-bath-per-hall dorms still exist too.

Many parents worry about the trend toward mixed housing that is popular at some colleges today, with schools actually placing young women and men together on the same hall. Fortunately, there are still both Christian and secular colleges that maintain completely separate dorms for men and women, and though some Christian schools have males on one floor of a dorm building and females on another, there is usually a high level of supervision involved as well as strict rules regarding visiting hours and behavior.

Frequently, even at secular colleges, several dormitory choices are available to incoming students, such as single-sex and substance-free halls. Don't be shy about asking your questions; student tour guides will be happy to share information on the various types of housing available. While the dormitory scene can sometimes feel strange and overwhelming, be assured that there are almost always suitable options available.   


Many colleges offer prospective students the opportunity to attend classes while they are visiting. Sometimes students must notify the school ahead of time that they would like to attend a class, designating a general area of interest. Other colleges keep a list of classes currently open to visitors, and the student chooses one on the day of the visit. If time allows, attending a class, hearing an actual professor, and observing the interaction of the students can have a real impact on the student's view of the school.

Location, Safety, and Transportation

Even without a car, students should have no problems getting around most schools. Many colleges promote biking on their campuses, while schools located in cold, snowy areas have made things easier for students by building covered walkways or underground tunnels. Large campuses have continuous shuttle services that ferry students from one part of the school to another, and almost every college will provide regular shuttles to take students into town for shopping.

Another perk to visiting the schools in person is the ability to understand what kind of town or city surrounds the school. Students are often surprised to find there is absolutely nothing near some of these schools at all, while other schools seem to have been set down directly in the middle of a big, noisy city. Though these factors are described to some extent on the Web sites and in the books, many young people don't fully comprehend the effect the location of a school can have on the educational experience and on personal morale. Again, each student is different, but experiencing the school in its environment is often quite helpful in determining whether it matters that the school is right in the middle of busy NYC or hopelessly lost in waving fields of grain. Sometimes, students are surprised at their own reactions.

Safety is a top priority at almost every college, but as you drive through the nearby town, take an evening stroll in the adjoining neighborhood, or stop for coffee in a quaint local plaza, pay attention to how secure you feel. As you and your student walk across campus, make certain there are emergency phones stationed at regular intervals, ready to take the calls of students who are in trouble of any kind or are even just wanting a late-night escort home from the library.


The choice between attending a Christian college or a secular one is serious and not the topic of this article. Obviously, there are many reasons for choosing a specific college, and the importance of this choice cannot be emphasized too much. Yet whether students are considering Christian schools, secular schools, or both, while on their college tours they should not overlook the fact that, one way or another, their faith will be greatly influenced over the course of the coming four years.

Students should actively investigate what the colleges and their surrounding communities can offer in the way of spiritual guidance, Christian fellowship, and service opportunities. Take time to check out the area's churches, even if it isn't Sunday. Most churches have staff available during the week to answer questions or at least provide informational material. Students should also discover the various outlets at these schools for Christian gatherings, Bible studies, and outreach. Some Christian colleges require daily attendance at a traditional chapel service, others schedule a more laid-back chapel time just once or twice a week, and still others offer many varieties of Christian services, geared to different styles of worship and topics of study.

If you are touring a secular college, make sure there are Christian students already enrolled and solid Christian organizations already active on campus. Groups like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship are vibrant and growing at many schools, offering a wonderful way for Christian students to band together, fostering friendship and accountability, and strengthening leadership and evangelism as they reach out to others. The young adult years are often a time of deep soul-searching, and the support of a caring church family and understanding Christian friends can make a big difference to a struggling student.

Auditions and Interviews

Many teens who intend to study music in college are required to audition on their instrument of choice. This audition often serves the dual purpose of determining both talent scholarships and acceptance into the music program. In addition, though the time of the stressful college interview has now largely passed, and though some schools provide off-campus, alumni interviews for those who live far from the school, some seniors will still find themselves required to travel for at least one interview.

If auditions or interviews are necessary, students should schedule them in a timely manner. Frequently, dates must be set months ahead of a visit as they are sometimes conducted on only a few specific days which you must somehow work into your schedule. Interviews and auditions almost always exert a positive effect on the student's application, and homeschooled students should use these occasions to demonstrate their maturity and dedication to learning, as well as their passions, gifts, and individual, self-confident personalities.

Just Do It!

Having graduated four children from our homeschool already, and having taken several college tours along the way, I highly recommend you consider such a trip for you and your high school student. The college trips we have taken have been some of the most enjoyable and meaningful times of our lives, well worth the expense and effort involved. Not only have we learned firsthand about specific colleges, we have forged new bonds and created wonderful memories as we began a new season in our lives together. 

Editor's note: When checking out Christian colleges, it's a good idea to ask what they teach about Genesis 1-11. Sadly, many fail to take a firm stand on scientific and Biblical creationism, despite the fact that evolutionary teaching is one of the biggest reasons Christian young people leave the faith. On such a vital issue, it's worth asking about!


Kim Lundberg and her family have been homeschooling in an interest-led, relaxed way for over 18 years. Mom to 10 children, Kim enjoys studying and discussing history, reading mysteries, baking, learning new things, and traveling.

Originally published in Home School Enrichment Magazine. Now, get a FREE subscription to HSE Digital by visiting Every issue is packed with homeschool encouragement, help, and information. Get immediate access to the current issue when you start your FREE subscription today!